I Got a Tumblr

I realized that I need something a little longer/more visual than twitter, which I use almost exclusively for links, so this is something I could probably make work. It would mean that blogging here will become even more infrequent than it already is, though, because I would want to reserve it for when I actually have something serious to say. But that’s not a bad idea, huh?

Also, I’m looking for both a better name and a better url, in case anyone has suggestions.

Penny Arcade! – I Hope You Like Text

Don’t say another goddamn word. Up until now, I’ve been polite. If you say anything else- word one– I will kill myself. And when my tainted spirit finds its destination, I will topple the master of that dark place. From my black throne, I will lash together a machine of bone and blood, and fuelled by my hatred for you this fear engine will bore a hole between this world and that one.

When it begins, you will hear the sound of children screaming- as though from a great distance. A smoking orb of nothing will grow above your bed, and from it will emerge a thousand starving crows. As I slip through the widening maw in my new form, you will catch only a glimpse of my radiance before you are incinerated. Then, as tears of bubbling pitch stream down my face, my dark work will begin.

I will open one of my six mouths, and I will sing the Song that ends the Earth.

For people who are as good with words as Gabe and Tycho, it’s amazing how far they have managed to dig themselves into a hole with this dickwolves thing. (A lot less amazing is how almost masturbatorily self-indulgent comments on Shakesville et al seem to be, but then I’ve rarely seen different from there.) It was a funny strip! It was a funny response strip, too, although I can see how that one comes off as insulting. Where they really screwed up, of course, is the t-shirt and the subsequent doubling down, where they unleashed (implicitly, I suppose, but until recently it sounded like they were encouraging it) all the worst that the internet has to offer against the shrill but perhaps less outrageous feminist blogosphere. At least they let off in the end- Tycho’s post certainly strikes an apologetic note.

PS: I find myself quite unable to talk about rape culture without talking about the rather troubling popularity of “rape” as a metaphor for “dominate” in “insti lingo” here in IIT Madras, and that’s going to be a rather long post, so I’ll just leave that for now, except to say that some responses some people here have to the actual occurence of rape serves as a disgusting testimony to the existence of such a thing as “rape culture”.

New Theme

I did rather like the old one, but (especially when I have other work to do) I have this periodic itch to go and tinker with things. So here you go: new theme and new header! How is it? I’ll revert if I get enough thumbs down.If both sidebars make it look too cluttered, I can cut one and use the same theme, so mention that, too.

Header image is “We Eat Light” by Brian Talbot on flickr. And the shot was taken somewhere on Comm Ave! I even think it looks a little familiar, but I’m probably wrong, because it’s a really long road.

 

Practice Essays

So those of you following me on facebook know that I’m going to be writing the GRE on my birthday, which happens to be next Wednesday. Practice for it has been a little weaker than it should have been- after I found out that most (engineering) colleges really don’t care as long as it’s about 1350-1400, and after I put above that in the 2 model tests I attempted, enthusiasm for it waned considerably- but since there’s less than a week to go I’m sort of buckling up again. To that end, I tried the writing part of the test just so I would have some idea of what to do when faced with it on the day of the exam- the other parts are easier to study for, since they have definite answers, but with writing, you just have to hope you don’t go blank when the time comes.

Anyway, long story short, here’s two essays that I wrote, and it would be awesome if someone cared enough to go through and rate them and tell me where I need to improve. It’s on 6. Here’s a description:

There are two tasks:

• a 45-minute “Present Your Perspective on an Issue” task
• a 30-minute “Analyze an Argument” task
You will be given a choice between two Issue topics. Each states an opinion on an issue of broad interest and asks you to discuss the issue from any perspective(s) you wish, so long as you provide relevant reasons and examples to explain and support your views.
You will not have a choice of Argument topics. The Argument task presents a different challenge from that of the Issue task: it requires you to critique a given argument by discussing how well reasoned you find it. You will need to consider the logical soundness of the argument rather than to agree or disagree with the position it presents. The two tasks are complementary in that one requires you to construct your own argument by taking a position and providing evidence supporting your views on the issue, whereas the other requires you to critique someone else’s argument by assessing its claims and evaluating the evidence it provides.

And here are the essays:

Analytical Writing

Prompt: “A person who does not thoroughly comprehend the technical side of a craft is incapable of judging it.”

There are many dimensions on which one must evaluate a work of art, such as the idea behind it, its functionality, the relevance of the work to contemporary or long-debated questions of interest to the general public, the aesthetics- a word that can be just as appropriate in the context of a “technical” work as a more conventionally artistic one, as we shall see- and finally, the skill and technique involved in its creation. While a layperson can easily judge the aesthetic and other aspects of the work, he or she might find themselves at a loss to judge the amount of work that has gone into perfecting any given craft and the difficulty involved in making any given piece. A layperson can denigrate an entire body of modern art as “splashes and doodles” if he/she has not given himself over to studying the meaning, symbols and implications of the pieces in question, but this hasty dismissal means very little.

Does this mean, however, that all judgements on the merit (or lack thereof) of a given work should be made only by those trained in that particular craft? Hardly. One does not need to understand how precisely he wields the brush to understand the skill and effort that has gone into one of Georges Seurat’s Pointillist pieces. An accountant who has never so much as picked up a chisel or a hammer can still appreciate the beauty of Michaelangelo’s David, and all but the most tone-deaf amongst us can be bewitched by the beauty of Beethoven’s Fifth.

There are some crafts, however, where at least some rudimentary understanding of the principles involved are necessary for true appreciation. Take, for instance, programming. To someone with no training in it, one piece of code might look very much like another. It is only once you have had some exposure to the craft that one begins to appreciate the fine points of indentation and nomenclature and even more training to appreciate the sheer elegance of a well-written function or algorithm. Mathematicians talk about how beautiful a particularly clever proof was, and this statement simply boggles most people- for how can a mass of symbols and operators, lemmas and clauses, possibly be “beautiful”? Surely, the word is inappropriate. However, this speaks only of the lack of understanding on the part of the layperson. Look a little deeper, and he might catch a glimpse of this beauty himself.

Works of art are not created to remain isolated in an ivory tower, to be approached only by those who have steeped themselves in the minutiae of the discipline. They are meant to be appreciated by the general public, perhaps with the aid of some information to put a piece in its intended context. In certain cases the prerequisites might be more stringent, but this does not imply that all judgement on the question must be reserved for the experts.

Argument Analysis

Prompt: [fairly long, but recapped pretty accurately in my introduction]

The author suggests that Bayside citizens must must impose additional taxes in order to raise the quality of education in the School District. He asserts that test scores and other statistics show a need for improvement, and that the poor facilities are to blame for this, by contrasting the situation in the neighbouring district of New Harbour, which has better facilities and scores better on various indicators of student performance. While the argument is reasonable, there are several caveats to be considered before making a decision on the topic.

It is possible that the gap between student performance in the Bayside and New Harbour districts can be explained by demographic differences in the population of the respective districts. Several studies have shown that the correlation between better facilities and better performance is rather weak compared to many other factors, such as the education level and socio-economic status of the parents, the number of books in the house, etc. In many studies, high end classroom equipment, audio visual aids and other similar amenities are only shown to be helpful for certain types of students, and their availability or lack thereof does not much assist the learning of many in the class. The differences cited may, for instance, be simply because the citizens of New Harbour place a higher priority on the performance of their students, which in itself can lead to better performance, irrespective of the facilities available in their schools. This might not work the other way; raising taxes is not very likely to make the citizens care more about education, and thus might not lead to any real change in student performance.

It is also possible that the problems in Bayside-broken windows, unusuable bathrooms, out-of-date facilities and so on- are a failure of management by the officials in charge of education, and not simply due to a lack of funds. There is also no reason to assume that the additional tax burden will be focused on the improvements that are most likely to help struggling students in the district. If the author can suggest how best to allocate the desired funds, and prove that these are the best or the most cost-effective ways to raise student performance in the district, then it might be worthwhile to raise the taxes. Without more evidence, a decision to raise taxes in Bayside might be premature.

Be…ok, brutal, if you want to be like that. Also, confession: I spelled Seurat as “Siraut” when I actually wrote the thing. No other changes, though.

Finally

Switched to postpaid and signed up for the data plan on the confidence that I’ll be getting my stipend at least from this month, so I finally have access to net wherever I go! Well, painfully slow net, but whatever. 3g should be rolling out in a few months, hopefully.

In other news, my strange not quite stage fright showed up again when I had to make a little speech about my cousin who was getting married today. And this was just close-ish family, too. I wasn’t scared at all when I went on stage, but my hands and voice started trembling anyway. This really is irritating :(.

Filtering my subconscious through 750 words

750 Words is a truly awesome idea, although I don’t know if I can explain exactly why it is so awesome. The concept is simple: every day you write 750 words or more of pure, unfiltered thought. It’s a brain dump-you don’t have to think through what you’re writing if you don’t want to- and it’s completely private by default, so it’s nothing like blogging- even the most amateurish of blogs (for me, at least) require some form of formatting, coherence etc, whereas this is more like a diary, but far more convenient. Firstly, it’s online, so you don’t have to keep track of a book. It counts your words for you, so you have some idea of where you are. Most important for me is that it’s typing rather than writing. I type far faster than I can write- writing 750 words every day would be a lot more of a chore than typing it out.

It has a ridiculously simple interface: just a plain screen on which to write with a fixed font and font size, and nothing else. You can insert formatting by using markups within the text using a system called Markdown. And no, this isn’t just full screen mode on wordpress, it’s much cleaner than that. But the really awesome thing about it is that it can analyze your daily torrents for emotion etc. It uses the Regressive Imagery Dictionary (for the emotions), and the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count system, according to the author. You can also include any sort of metadata that you want to track just by adding it in all caps with a number on a separate line and the site will collect it and track it for you. For example, you can type HAPPY: 9 on a line and track  your happiness over any period of time. You can compare world averages to your numbers for the data generated using the inbuilt text analysis systems, which is also fun. There is a truly huge amount of info that you can get, and although I haven’t been uing it for very long I suppose 750 words over a decent length of time should provide for numbers that actually mean something.

The design of the website itself is really good, minimalistic but attractive. That along with the analysis and metadata tracking is actually one of the major attractions of this site for me. You might ask what’s the difference between something like this and just keeping text files on your comp, which is what I used to do, but not only is this so much more convenient to access, it’s also far more attractive to see. (I might feel differently when I get back to insti and have to deal with LAN cut, however. I hope that my hostel still has 24 hour net.) Also, to make sure that you stay on track, you can also get “badges” for an unbroken 3-day writing streak, 5-day streak and much longer, points every day for completing certain amounts of writing, badges for how quickly you write and how focused you are etc.

Check out the about page here for more details.

New Theme: Quentin

I like the classical look, but mostly I just wanted a change. Any comments? If I get enough “dislikes” I will change it back, or go for something else entirely. I’d pick one with a custom header, but a) it’s painful to make one and b) it didn’t work for me on the other theme when I did.

The New Look

The idea was to find a custom header, which this is not, although the theme has the option- I liked the default one so much that I decided to do away with my attempt at a dark blog header, which I had mostly copied from some guy (I googled for “blog headers”, I don’t even know who I got it from), anyway. It’s much cleaner( but is it clean enough, kalafudra?) and lighter, and although I wish it didn’t have such wide margins, I guess I can live with that. For now, I am content.

The hostile web

I was just reading through a post on Marginal Revolution when I had something of an epiphany which is, in retrospect, completely obvious.

We talk of the internet as some sort of large global community, but I find it very interesting how there’s so little true interaction or assimiliation of viewpoints on the web. Ideally, when one can easily communicate with those on “the other side” of any given ideological divide, one expects some sort of “softening”-not necessarily a complimentary term, perhaps- of stances, some little move towards a mutual understanding. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be working all that well.

Case in point: this post on MR summing up, from a libertarian point of view, an intelligent and reasoned explanation of progressivism, and this post from Matt Yglesias’s blog doing the reverse i.e. an intelligent, reasoned explanation of libertarianism from a progressive point of view. The posts are quite reasonable, so you’ll have to scroll down a bit and check the comments to see what I’m talking about. To be fair, the commenters on MR are easily the most civilized I’ve seen on any blog, and somewhat less ideologically blinkered. Yglesias’s blog, on the other hand… not so much.

1. Luke Says:
August 8th, 2009 at 8:29 am
On it!
My Libertarian Manifesto:
I got mine!
2. RalphF Says:
August 8th, 2009 at 8:37 am
@Luke – I think that’s more the definition of Conservatism.
Libertarianism is “I want to make all the rules”.
3. fostert Says:
August 8th, 2009 at 8:42 am
“Why not simply join forces with the wealthy and powerful so as to create a political coalition that’s plausibly capable of overwhelming xenophobia and creating borders that are relatively open to the flow of goods and labor?”
Because many of the wealthy and powerful got that way by exploiting xenophobia. It’s the classic divide and conquer strategy. If you get people to fight each other, they do most of the conquering work for you. And what better way to get people fighting each other than xenophobia? Supply weapons to whichever side offers you the best oil contracts, and they’ll be your puppet if they win. The wealthy and powerful didn’t get that way by being fair.
4. David Says:
August 8th, 2009 at 8:45 am
My summation: free-markets, free love, and the underpants gnomes will take care of the poor.
5. Petey Says:
August 8th, 2009 at 8:53 am
“What Is Libertarianism?”
An infantile disorder.
—–
The New Yorker this week has a pretty interesting piece this week on the origins of Libertarianism.
6. Cranky Observer Says:
August 8th, 2009 at 8:58 am
Libertarianism is Republicans who want to date liberal women.
Cranky
7. Flo Says:
August 8th, 2009 at 9:01 am
Thanks for clearing that up. I thought Libertarians were old conservatives who didn’t want to be associated with Bush anymore.

I mean, yes, very funny. On the other hand, hardly demonstrative of a willingness to just listen to the other side. Bear in mind that this is on a post that is explicitly written to encourage some sort of constructive debate. And this is nothing compared to what you can find on, say Paul Krugman’s blog.

PS: This isn’t an attempt to dump on progressives, whom I have a fair bit in common with anyway. It’s just a good illustration of the broader principle that I wanted to convey… I couldn’t find any really egregious comments on MR from the libertarian side, and I was too lazy to do any more research.